We’ve looked at our enemy, indwelling sin. We’ve seen its pervasiveness and deadliness. Now we want to see what God has done to enable us to conquer it! We begin by seeing what God has done to remedy the problem of sin. Then, in our next post we will look at how he calls us to trust in what he has done, and in the power he provides, fight against sin.
In looking at indwelling sin we saw that two things that need a remedy. One is our sinful nature that enslaves us to sin, and the other is our original guilt and condemnation that is rooted not first in our individual sinning but in our connection with Adam in his sin. The book of Romans—indeed the whole Bible— is the story of how God has worked in history to remedy these two problems. The problem of our condemnation in Adam God remedies through justification in Christ.
The problem of our corruption and depravity he remedies through sanctification by the Spirit. Or to put it another way: The problem of our legal guilt and condemnation before God is solved by his reckoning to us the righteousness Christ; and the problem of our moral defilement and habitual sinning is solved by his purifying us by the work of Spirit. The first remedy, justification, comes by imputed righteousness. The other, sanctification, comes by imparted righteousness. Justification is instantaneous; sanctification is progressive.
This is made possible by Jesus’ sinless life and his death on the cross. Even though Jesus was subject to all the temptations to which we are all subject, he never once sinned in any way. Hebrews 4:15 – For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
At the heart of Christ’s life and ministry stands the cross. All His life had been preparatory for and led to that moment. At the cross, Christ provided the ground of our salvation—the basis upon which God saves us. Jesus’ death was substitutionary in nature. He died on our behalf, receiving the legal penalty for our sins and satisfying God’s wrath towards us. Isaiah was given a glimpse of this: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (54:4-6).
Likewise, Paul summarizes it well in 2 Cor 5:21 – “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Because Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, God no longer holds us responsible to pay for our sin. All of our sins are forgiven: past, present, and future.
Not only are our sins forgiven, but we are also “justified”—that is, we are declared righteous by God. Righteousness is a legal term: it speaks of a “right standing” before God. God considers the righteousness that Christ achieved as belonging to us. Just as Adam’s sin was imputed to us, so through faith, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. This declaration is a once-for-all, permanent event in our lives that nothing can change. Thus, Paul says in Colossians 2:13-14, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,  by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
In sanctification, the pollution of sin is progressively removed as we are made holy in Christ. To be holy means to be set apart to God. This includes being set apart from all that is sinful and opposed to God. Holiness is God’s goal for his people, and the Christian life involves the process of reaching this goal. The New Testament is full of words that describe this process: transforming, renewing, conforming, maturing, and growing. Although we will never reach perfection in this life, we are called to make every effort to live a holy life for the glory of God.
1 Peter 1:15-16: “but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
1 Thess. 4:7: “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.”
In sanctification, God is at work just as in justification. Just as we cannot justify ourselves, so we cannot sanctify ourselves. The activity of the Holy Spirit precedes any action towards holiness on our part and makes our actions possible. Although we aren’t always aware of his activity, if we are becoming more holy it is because he is at work. So Paul says in 2 Cor 3:18: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
John Calvin comments “The only good we do is what He does in us; it is not that we do nothing ourselves, but that we act only when we have been acted upon, in other words under the direction and influence of the Holy Spirit.”
In our next post, we will look more at sanctification, with a view towards the practical question, ‘how can I experience the empowerment of the Spirit to fight against sin and grow holy before God?’